Two weeks ago, my family ate at Salty Iguana. We sat at a long table for six, with one empty seat on the end. To the random passerby, we were just a family of five enjoying a Sunday dinner. But to us, we were a family of six minus one. We were missing the little ball of energy that usually lights up our faces. We were missing the youngest member of the Kohring clan. We were missing Uchan.
That night at dinner, Uchan was just at a friend’s house. But for the first 15 years of my life, we were only a family of five. At dinner, my younger siblings were constantly screaming, singing or both. I was more likely to sit quietly, preferring to watch the show taking place rather than partake in the craziness. We were a good balance. My parents loved us just as much as they loved each other. I thought I had the perfect family. And I was content.
But in August of 2011, I realized something had been missing my whole life. Something I had never noticed. Uchan came into our lives and made our family complete.
I met Uchan on August 18, 2011. He had just stepped off a 17-hour flight. It was the first I time I had ever talked to my then 4-year-old brother. I had known about him for two years, since the day my parents told us they wanted to adopt. But really, I only knew his life story — he grew up in poverty in Gambella, a region outside of Ethiopia, and his mom gave him up so he could have better opportunities. My parents spent two weeks with him in Africa before he came home. There they learned that he liked to play sports, but they had no idea he was actually a superstar. It turns out I had so much to learn about his personality.
Life with Uchan has been emotional, to say the least. To be honest, I’m kind of a crybaby. Uchan has brought me to tears more often than one would think.
I cried as I hugged him when I first met him at the airport. I cried on Thanksgiving when he threw a fit about having to sit next to me. And I cried last weekend as I frantically searched the neighborhood after discovering he wasn’t waiting for me in my car like he was supposed to be.
We look nothing alike and we’ve only known each other for a year and a half, but I feel like he was destined to be my brother.
Don’t get me wrong, our relationship is complicated. He is stubborn and thinks it’s hilarious to ignore my hugs and hellos. But I know deep down he loves me, and I love him. I want to protect him from everything and for him to just be my innocent baby brother forever.
I was scared for Uchan to come to America. I wanted him to fit in. I wanted him to adjust fast. I wanted him to be happy and feel loved. And it took awhile; he had to learn English and he had to get used to us.
I wish I knew what was going on in his head those first few months. It was hard. He would say things in Amharic, his native language, and then get frustrated when we didn’t understand. I was constantly worrying about him and what he thought about his new life.
I’m not sure when it happened, but suddenly Uchan clicked. He is the comic relief of our family. I forgot what it’s like to have a little guy running around the house since my brother Peter is 11 and my sister Emily is 14. Uchan can say something or just give us a look and suddenly we’re all laughing. The other night at dinner he told us he loves his girlfriend because a baby in a white diaper shot him in the heart with an arrow. And then he gave us his signature “you know what I’m talkin’ about” face. We were blessed with a boy who belongs.
After 18 months, I’ve learned a lot about Uchan. He likes to dance and sing at the dinner table. He has more facial expressions than any 6-year-old I know. He has scored more goals in his kindergarten soccer career than I ever have. He loves to play on the iPad, and has a bad habit of “accidentally” buying $15 apps. He spent the entire summer running around the pool and never took off his swim team suit. He’s your typical American kid — with a few twists.
His skin is so dark you can’t see him when we play hide-and-seek at night. His accent is adorable, but occasionally hard to understand. When he says “that” it comes out like “dag” and he sometimes confuses his verb tenses. Sometimes he doesn’t understand that his words can hurt, even if he’s just kidding. And we still have to explain things to him that most American 6-year-olds would know. It took him awhile to understand that when you go to the store you can’t just take whatever you want off the shelf and leave. And when you give your item to the cashier, they will eventually give it back — that one took even longer.
Despite that, I’m so proud of my brother. I love to go to his basketball games where he towers over every kid on the court. After he scores a goal in soccer, he likes to turn around to be sure I saw him, always with a huge grin plastered to his face. Not only did he learn English quickly, but his reading scores are above the kindergarten benchmarks. He’s a sweetheart with a smile that lights up the room.
Even though Uchan’s adjusted, I still worry about him. I worry about racism. He’s a little kid, and we all know little kids don’t exactly have edit buttons. In preschool, he was asked why his skin was so dark. My mom was sitting by him and she says he just shrugged and ignored it, but I wish I knew what he really thought. He’s the one who told me his skin was so dark you can’t see it at night. The comment was light hearted, but I still wonder if it had deeper meaning. I wish I knew if he cared.
I want to walk around with him every day at school and explain to all his friends that he was adopted from Africa. I can tell everyone he meets, that way they don’t have to ask. And he’ll never have to explain. I want to protect Uchan from everything, but I can’t. He’s grown up faster than any kid should have to, but he’s still a little boy inside. He’s not immune to racial comments, whether someone’s joking or not.
I want Uchan to know he is so perfect. He’s talented, sweet, smart and funny. He’s the best little brother anyone could ask for, and I’m blessed to call him mine. I love him more than anything — I always will.
But most importantly, I want him to know that he’s the reason our family of six is finally complete, and we couldn’t be happier to call him ours.